In the summer of 2011, I had a near meltdown as my then-cell phone — a MotoRokr that never quite lived up to its shiny, happy ads — would not stop ringing. It was like that episode of How I Met Your Mother when Barney Stinson advertises his number while at the Super Bowl and finds himself deluged with calls from women who want to sleep with him.
But my ringing phone, and those of women across Pakistan, isn’t because we advertised our phone numbers. Instead, the ringing is a prelude to endless text messages, all from a series of unknown numbers from men who’d like to “make fraindship.”
Plz call me
Phone rings. “Hello?” There’s no one on the other end, but a female voice saying hello appears to confirm to the caller that he has struck gold.
And then the messages start.
Plz call me
What has happened to you?
Why have you not replied to me?
I want to be friends with you.
Please reply now to be frainds.
Pakistan has had cellular phone service since the late 1990s. It was expensive when it first launched, and only available on bulky handsets. Mobiles were symbols of the rich and famous. But service took off in the early 2000s. A slew of mobile phone operators — from a subsidiary of Egypt’s Orascom Telecom to the state telecommunication authority and others propped up with financing from the Gulf — flooded Pakistan with SIM cards and prepaid phone offers.
The country took up mobile calling with alacrity. There are over 120 million registered SIMs in Pakistan, up from five million eight years ago. Cell phone services have begun causing the government headaches. It has recently resorted to demanding cell phone operators turn off service throughout entire cities as a counter-terrorism tactic, propped up by its belief that this prevents explosive devices from being triggered by mobiles. Last December, the president had to intervene to halt a proposed ban on after-hours cell phone packages at cheaper rates, which legislators asserted were spreading “obscenity.”
With the spate of affordable cell phone packages and flashy advertisements — including one that nearly caused traffic accidents as people craned their necks to look at the model — came anonymous text messages. Telemarketers offering everything from fumigation services to treatments for erectile dysfunction continually flood inboxes, but there is also a motley crew of friendship hunters: men who persistently text women and want to chat.
It isn’t just plaintive pleas. The anonymous texts include couplets of romantic Urdu poetry and jokes (there are now Web sites and books of “SMS poetry”) and what has now become known as “SMS art”:
,-$*$-..-$*$-, ( * G 0 0 D * ) "-.,,,*.*.*,,,.-" %%%%%%%% (*><//><orning*) "+.,,,,.-"-.,,,,.+" %========%
This was probably meant to look like some kind of face, but I wasn’t smiling when I received it.
Sometimes, they’re soliciting a little more than friendship. The owner of a hair and make-up salon got one: “Please give my number to your parlour’s employees, clients and ‘debauch’ aunties. I will please them!”
The anonymous “friendshippers” are also incredibly persistent. Even though most people delete the messages, pass the more hilarious ones around, or try to have the number blocked, they continue. One evening I received messages at 7:13, 7:16, 7:24, 7:28, 7:29, 7:32, 7:34, 7:35, 7:37, 7:39, and 7:42 p.m.
One man has been messaging a friend for two years: He always texts after 9 p.m. — with a message containing Islamic guidance for good measure. In a country where religion dictates everything from the constitution to wardrobe choices, those seeking friendship via text message claim to be driven by some religious spirit. Another girl told me she’d received a message from someone who thought her name was Ayesha: “SalamZzz [hello]. Hi hw r u ayesha? ayesha if u dntmind even a n0nmuslim replies to salam and you are still a muslim.”
The deeper question is where friendship hunters get the numbers of so many women throughout Pakistan. Several theories circulate: from shops that sell phone credit and through lists available from banks, food-delivery places, and clothing stores. The numbers get passed around, and harassment cases have even ended up in courts.
One cell phone service, Ufone, has a new service that would allow women to give a scrambled number to a shopkeeper in order to buy credit. The advert features two chagrined men straining to catch the number being recited by the girl at the store counter.
The challenge is when the friendship messages come via work contacts. As a journalist, I hand out my cell phone number freely to everyone from police officers to the spokespeople of political and religious groups. And those are the numbers one can’t block, and so the vicious cycle continues: I’ve received friendship messages from a courthouse staffer, an 11 p.m. “let’s chat” call from a religious group’s spokesperson, and a message from a bank’s customer care center staffer asking for my help in finding a job.
Dad says that given the absence of an enforcement structure, women need to assess how they share their number publicly, including whether to write it on feedback forms at restaurants or on Facebook. Though there are laws that cover harassment — both on the streets and at the workplace — legal recourse is expensive and often skewed against women.
Sorry, wrong number
Over the years, Pakistani women have developed a finely tuned routine to get rid of the friendship hunters. For those who specialize in calling and asking to speak to whomever it is on the other end, the best way is to just put the phone on hold, let the caller talk, and waste his phone credit.
A second option — which isn’t always effective — is to hand the phone to a man who can then answer and berate the caller. The third is to block the number through a service offered by the cell phone operator. Operators are mandated by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to protect customers from spam and offensive messages, and they have to maintain lists of “gray” and “black” users depending on the extent of the violation of their cell phone contract.
Not surprisingly, most women resort to the first two methods rather than blocking the number permanently. For starters, it isn’t even easy to find the number for registering complaints in the labyrinths that are cell phone company Web sites. Even though they advertise on all television and radio channels, in all newspapers, and online, there is little awareness of what the complaint system is.
And the process of getting a number blocked is fraught for victims who are made to jump hurdle after hurdle, while the abuser is free to continue his actions. My telecom operator informed me that there was no way I could block text messages from a number registered with a different cell phone operator, and that I’d have to make a written complaint to the other service.
Frustrated, I called up the other service. The customer care representative said, in typically bureaucratic manner, that complaints should be sent via fax, but they couldn’t do much. Back to square one. And after trying to block one person sending text messages, I got a reply from him. Turns out that the cell phone operator had let my “friend” know that I had complained about him. Pronto, a message: “This wasn’t nice of you to block my number. You must not be a Muslim.”
What makes the friendship hunters keep going? Is it the belief that one day some girl will agree to be friends? Is it just the thrill of hearing a girl’s voice? Is it the urban legend that someone did fall in love and get married after these anonymous friendship texts? Perhaps one day Pakistani women will learn the answers to these questions. For now, it’s back to the grind of deleting the messages or deciphering SMS art.
Illustration by Sara Pocock.1
Saba Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and reports on politics, culture, militancy, human rights, and religious movements. Her writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Roads & Kingdoms, and ForeignPolicy.com's AfPak Channel blog. A list of her recent work is available on her website.